While other gymnastic stars are receiving worldwide attention for their impressive routines in the gym, one athlete made history before the Rio Olympics Games even began. As athletes from across the globe walked at the Parade of Nations, Catalina Ponor made history at Rio, as she was the first gymnast to carry the Romanian flag at the Olympics Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5.
Rio is a year of firsts for the gymnastics star, since Romania didn't qualify for a full five-person team at this year's games. In fact, Ponor was the sole gymnast representing the country at the competition, with Larisa Iordache brought in only as a backup. Iordache was originally suspected to be the Olympic pick, but a hand injury set her back. Not sending a full team to Rio is a shocking development for a country that's won Olympic gymnastics team medals every year since 1976.
Ponor has competed alongside her teammates at two Olympic Summer Games (2004 and 2012). At Athens, she earned three gold medals: in the team all-around, as well as individual balance beam and floor. After retiring, she came back in London to earn bronze in the team competition and silver in floor. She then retired again, but has revived her career for one more Olympic run. The advantage to competing alone, she told the Olympic News Service, is, "If I make mistakes by myself, then it's on my hands. If I don't do anything, it's my fault."
Undoubtably, competing by yourself probably takes its toll as well. Just looking at the camaraderie between the U.S. gymnastics team girls, you can see how much they lift each other up throughout the competition. To not have the built-in support of teammates at the Olympics has to be a tough burden to bear.
Coming out of retirement after the London Games, Ponor won the World Cup in March for beam. After the impressive showing, Romania decided to use their single berth to send Ponor to Rio. Unfortunately, this time around, Ponor returns to Romania without medaling in any of the events. She earned fifth place in beam, her strongest event. But for a gymnast who has retired twice, three Olympic competitions and five career medals isn't a bad way to go out. And being honored by carrying the Romanian flag during the Opening Ceremony is a little reminder of how much her country believes in her.